June 6, 2013
June 5 - Diondre Batson Feature
June 7 - Alexis Paine Feature
EUGENE, Ore. - The hammer throw is one of the more intriguing events in collegiate track and field. Casual observers would assume that the process of launching a 16-pound, four-inch steel ball attached to a metal chain is an action relying mostly on brute strength. On the contrary, scientific-based techniques and an assortment of minute details steadily have become the key factors behind the world's elite hammer throwers.
But don't let all that science talk bore you, the history of the hammer throw definitely has a "cool factor," with origins of the sport connected to the mythological god Thor, the Scottish Highland Games (during the terrible reign of England's Edward the Longshanks, yes the antagonist from the popular Braveheart film) and even King Henry VIII.
And what little kid doesn't love skipping rocks across a pond or hurling various objects over their head? Those activities are a rite of passage during one's youth. The chance to take it to another level as a collegiate athlete? Purely a bonus.
After decades of minimal success in this unique event, the Alabama track and field program, seemingly overnight, has found itself in the golden age of Crimson Tide hammer throwing. That renaissance fittingly is due to the fortuitous arrival of 21-year-old freshman Elias Hakansson, a native of Halmstad, Sweden. Hakansson is among 24 entrants who will compete in the 2013 NCAA hammer throw this week in Eugene, Ore.
Despite being on campus for less than a year, Hakansson has etched his name all over the Alabama top 10 lists not only for the hammer throw (an outdoor event) but also for the indoor weight throw, which utilizes a much heavier, 35-pound metal ball that is attached to a shorter chain.
At the LSU Indoor Invitational, only a couple months into his Alabama career, Hakansson reached a school-record distance of 67 feet, 6 ¼ inches in the weight throw. He went on to post an impressive third-place finish at the SEC Indoor Championships and narrowly missed a spot in the NCAA 16-thrower field (the final weight throw qualifier had a top distance of 68-7).
Of course, the best was yet to come during the outdoor season for Hakansson, whose tremendous technical skills and knowledge of the event make him much more suited for the hammer than the weight throw, which is more forgiving for stylistic errors and is an event often dominated by strength-based competitors. Alabama's "Swedish Surprise" was undersized as an early teenager and even now checks in at a relatively lean 6-3, 210 pounds.
Although Sweden certainly is not a hotbed for the hammer throw (unlike traditional powers such as Hungary and Russia), the Swedes have a growing youth program that is starting to produce noteworthy results.
"In Sweden, training for the hammer throw traditionally has been based on strength, but they are not good technicians," says Alabama second-year assistant coach/throwing events specialist Doug Reynolds, who was impressed with Hakansson at various European and World Championship events over the years.
"Elias has a totally different approach," said Reynolds. "He's basically a kind of scientist when it comes to the art of hammer throwing. He's done extensive study of the event from a biomechanics standpoint and understands cause and effect in every action. He strives to master even the minutest details in order to maximize his performance."
Hakansson - whose early days in track and field were centered on sprinting, plus the long jump and high jump - always has felt more at home training on the track (or in video study) rather than in the weight room. Interestingly, he refers to his "strength" as being an ever-developing technical expertise, as opposed to the brute physical strength commonly associated with successful athletes in the throwing events.
"It's possible some of the youth coaches in Sweden did not initially appreciate how Elias was honing his craft," explains Reynolds. "He was not lifting weights on a regular basis and that's why he is behind the curve from a physical strength standpoint. But he's light years ahead in the technical aspects, and in the long run that has ended up paying big dividends for him."
Those big dividends have included earning a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team for both the indoor and outdoor seasons. Hakansson set the Alabama hammer throw record (211-4) while winning the event at the Samford Multi Meet, and he later re-set that record (214-11) en route to placing third at the SEC Outdoor meet. He is the 11th-seeded qualifier among the 24-thrower field at the 2013 NCAAs, with half of those hammer throw entrants being seniors, along with five juniors, three sophomores and only three other freshmen (Virginia Tech's Tomas Kruzliak, Purdue's Chukwuebuka Enekwechi and Oregon's Greg Skipper).
Hakansson - who recently was ranked among the top 10 hammer throwers in the world for his age group - essentially has a foundational academic background behind his hammer throwing, an analytical approach that was fostered by his father, Lars. The elder Hakansson actually had no track and field experience; rather, he is a doctor who applied concepts of physiology and biomechanics to learning about the art of hammer throwing when Elias started developing an avid interest in the event at the age of 12.
"My dad started collecting all this information on the internet and he assembled three binders full of theoretical and textbook stuff," says the appreciative son. "We looked at a lot of film showing the great throwers and I think we now have thousands of videos of me throwing in the various events. We began studying every single angle of the throws."
Due to his smaller frame and limited strength, the 14-year-old Hakansson rationalized that he should pursue an event where he could maximize his technical expertise while minimizing his lack of physical strength. He chose the hammer over the shot put or discus and the rest, as they say, is history.
Hakansson's migration to the throwing events was not without a dose of fate. Around the age of 11, he began developing an irritating condition in his heel, an affliction common to boys of that age but one that typically disappears a couple years later (as was the case with Elias). The nagging heel condition forced him to stop competing in the long jump and high jump, clearing the path towards a career in the throwing events and, ultimately, specialization in the hammer.
If you are looking for a quick breakdown in hammer technique, Hakansson, who speaks English very well, is more than happy to oblige:
"You can basically divide the hammer technique into three parts," says the talented Alabama newcomer. "The first part is the basic tempo. The second is radius, or trying to keep the hammer as far away from the body as possible. And the final part is rotational axis, trying to stay with your center of gravity in the middle.
"It's that latter part that coach Reynolds and I have been working a lot with during training. I have my most issues with trying to maintain the rotational axis."
As Reynolds notes, his star pupil still has "plenty of upside," namely in the strength and conditioning realm. A tailored weight-room profile is being developed for Hakansson, mapping out a strategy that will supplement his existing advantage on the technical side.
"I am going to start implementing whatever I do in the weight room and try to incorporate that with my throwing," explains Hakansson. "We are trying to find out what works best for me in the weight room and have come up with a plan for next year that I'm really excited about."
Hakansson's weight room plan will not focus on much maximum effort but rather will involve more days working out in the weight facility (four days, instead of the customary three).
So how exactly does a Swedish hammer thrower end up in Alabama, rubbing elbows with members of the two-time defending national football champions?
Hakansson initially was an early commit to UCLA, where he would have joined seven other Swedes as part of a program overseen by Mike Maynard, the Bruins' director of track and field in addition to being coach of the throw events. When some technicalities held up the process, Reynolds learned from Maynard (his collegiate event coach at Arizona in the late 1990s) that Hakansson might be interested in signing on with Alabama.
Because Hakansson still was less than a year out of high school when he enrolled at Alabama, he maintained status as a freshman this year and has three years of remaining eligibility. The Scandinavian newcomer has quickly adapted to his new surroundings, meshing well with Reynolds' training concepts while settling into life in a big-time college football town.
"I never even went on a recruiting trip to Alabama, but I had heard coach Reynolds talk about all the options that were there and I trusted what he was telling me," says Hakansson.
"What I found appealing about Alabama was first of all the training facilities were very good. You can throw there all year round and even can throw indoors, if there were to be bad weather. You also get all the nutrition counseling and benefits and there's a good gym and weight room. Basically, really good all-around facilities."
But what about that ever-pervasive, "foreign" sport? American football?
"As the name suggests, it's strictly limited to the United States," laughs Hakansson. "I knew nothing about football in this country, but I was very impressed by the atmosphere, the huge stadium and how excited people were about it.
"I haven't yet developed a passionate interest for the sport of football, but I definitely came to understand why people are so absorbed by it. It's a great way to show their love for Alabama."
When Hakansson corresponds with family and friends back home in Sweden, he shares how impressed he is with the "abundance of resources and assets" provided to Alabama student-athletes. "This university is very well invested in its athletic programs," he says. "They care a lot about their athletes and the programs are very centered around the interests of the athletes."
When head coach Dan Waters and his impressive coaching staff took over the direction of the Alabama track and field program in the summer of 2011, they had one defining, central goal: to become nationally competitive in a wide range of events, a clear divergence from the program's recent past that was centered on elite sprinters and distance runners.
Consider Elias Hakanssonto be the poster child of this new way of thinking in Alabama track and field.
"We basically started the men's throwing program from scratch," says Waters. "Elias is just one of many promising throwers to join our program over the past two years and those individuals are an example of how we now expect to compete in every event area.
"To not provide our student-athletes with the training and facilities to be competitive on a national scale would be criminal."
Hakansson - who Waters says has a "true knack for a unique event, the most dynamic event in our sport" - has relied on all his technical knowledge to excel in the hammer throw. With the longer radius on the wire and the lighter ball, the hammer throw rotations move significantly faster than the weight throw and the event is significantly less forgiving - as hammer competitors can quickly drift off balance and become out of position.
Reynolds compares the 3-4 rotations that most hammer throwers employ to spinning a basketball on your finger. Unlike the other throw events, the hammer throw process gradually builds maximum speed into the final turn. It's a simple process, yet a difficult one, as on error in one turn affects the next. Such sequential failure ultimately affects the distance of the throw.
Built on counter-balance, the hammer release occurs within the final turn while the javelin and discus events feature actual release angles, via a striking movement (whereas the ball in the hammer event already is in furious motion leading up to the release). Overdoing the finish in a hammer throw can dramatically affect the flight of the ball.
All of that technical mumbo-jumbo outlined above provides greater appreciation for Hakansson's mastery of the hammer throw.
"When I transition from coaching other athletes to working with Elias, I have to switch gears and re-order my way of thinking, because he has the mindset of a coach," says the proud tutor Reynolds. "Elias has an inherent understanding of this event and how to approach it technically. He really set himself apart at the recent NCAA regional. He's just a rock-solid mental competitor. That was an event where you are qualifying for the NCAA Championships and a lot of guys fall off under that pressure.
"But Elias did not seem nervous or antsy, he never wavered. He performed with ease and consistency, like a great champion. I have to keep reminding myself that this kid is only a freshman."
What's the deal with this hammer throw event anyway?
The early forms of a hammer-like event date back to 1829 BC and the Tailteann Games that were held in Tara, Ireland. A few hundred years later, Celtic mythology told of hero Cuchulainn grabbing a chariot wheel by the axle, whipping it around his head and throwing it farther than any mortal man. The sport later evolved into launching a small boulder connected to the end of a wooden handle. Ancient Teutonic tribes practiced forms of the hammer throw during religious festivals that honored the god Thor.
The hammer throw ultimately became part of the Scottish Highland Games in the last 1800s, connecting back to the late 13th and early 14th centuries during the Wars of Scottish Independence. England's King Edward I of England - Edward the Longshanks from the movie Braveheart - had prohibited Scotsmen from possessing weapons during that time and the Scots used alternative methods (such as the hammer throw) to compensate as military training.
Historical records and artifacts indicate that the hammer throw emerged as a popular event throughout the Middle Ages. King Henry VIII even is depicted in a 16th-century drawing that shows him hurling a blacksmith's sledgehammer, which is tied to the ultimate naming of the event.
The men's hammer throw has been an Olympic event since 1900, while the women's hammer became part of the Olympic program in 2000.
The hammer apparatus includes a 16-pound steel ball, measuring four inches in length, attached to a metal wire with a triangular-shaped grip on the other end. The throwing motion begins with a couple swings over the competitor's head to gain momentum, followed by 3-4 full rotations (some smaller throwers even can turn five times) of the body in a circular motion. Each rotation is grounded in an intricate heel-toe movement, with the ball moving in a circular path and rapidly gaining velocity.
World-class hammer throwers can create a speed and force combination that is equivalent to 60 miles per hour at the point of release.
By Pete LaFleur for RollTide.com